On Saturday, Stanford will open its season against No. 12 Oregon in a near-empty Autzen Stadium. Undefeated in November, Stanford football is in an unusual state as it makes the trip to Eugene.
The team’s hotel will have grab and go meals, meetings in ballrooms and each player in his own room. Travel will consist of a bigger plane than usual with fewer people and more buses. Team movies, meals and family time have all been eliminated.
“Dystopian is a bit too harsh,” Stanford head coach David Shaw ’95 said of the procedures.
It will have been 343 days since Stanford’s most recent game against Notre Dame when the game kicks off in Oregon. During that entire time, the Cardinal have been saddled with a 4-8 record and missing out on bowl season, both firsts under Shaw.
“It wasn’t a possibility, it was an eventuality [that] some games are just not going to be played,” Shaw said of his discussions on the NCAA and Pac-12 committees. “From the very beginning, our student athletes let us know that if we can play, it’s worth it.”
On Thursday, it became a reality, as Cal’s game against Washington was canceled due to COVID-19. To say the least, the virus has shaped the entire season.
In addition to meetings about football, Shaw’s week has also consisted of meetings about how to navigate the intricacies of traveling and playing football during a pandemic. As Shaw spoke with the media on Thursday, his Zoom connection was lost as he answered a question about the effect of the pandemic. When the players met with the media on Monday, instead of jogging over after practice, they waited for the seat to be wiped down by associate director of communications Tyler Geivett.
The first player to speak was, naturally, senior quarterback Davis Mills.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” Mills said. “With all the stuff that happened this offseason, it’s kind of bittersweet to finally get to this moment.”
Due to the election, Stanford did not practice Tuesday. Instead, the team shifted the beginning of the week a day earlier, considering Sunday the beginning of Oregon week and holding the typical hard “Tuesday” practice on Monday.
The other adjustment in practice has been favorable for the Cardinal. Autzen Stadium, typically one of the loudest in the nation, will not have fans, so Stanford has not needed to juice up the crowd noise on its speakers.
“It’s one of the loudest stadiums you will get to in the Pac-12,” Mills said. “Luckily, we’re not going to have that this year.”
Mills made the trip to Eugene two years ago when Stanford won an overtime thriller, but like most other Cardinal, he was just a spectator. Oregon’s roster is 73.6% underclassmen, the most in FBS, while Stanford’s is 71.6%, the fourth most.
“We’ve got so many young guys, those guys watched that game on TV,” Shaw said with a laugh.
In 2020, Mills expects there to be a set decibel level of crowd noise that he needs to navigate. Instead of needing to come up with hand signals and silent cadences, Mills considers it a blessing to be able to communicate all of his calls as normal, and hopes that it will calm the younger players’ nerves.
As for his coach, Shaw mentioned that he would be disappointed not to hear the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” chant, but is otherwise undisturbed.
“There’s part of me that is going to miss that.” Shaw said. “But the other 80% of me is excited that our quarterback will actually be able to communicate and we’ll be able to hear each other.”
Stanford will be playing without two potential NFL draft picks, senior left tackle Walker Little and senior cornerback Paulson Adebo. Both will be missed. Adebo accounted for half of the defense’s eight interceptions last year despite missing the last three games.
As a whole, the defense had just 11 takeaways last year and improving that number has been a focus of the entire offseason. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has keyed in on momentum-changing plays.
Fifth-year free safety Malik Antoine, a second-year captain, has seen “some really good habits” created in this preseason training. Adebo’s departure left a hole at the position that was filled by junior cornerback Ethan Bonner.
Last year, secondary coach Duane Akina indicated that Obi Eboh ’20, who has since transferred to UCLA, was competing with Bonner for the spot. After four games, Kyu Blu Kelly beat out Eboh for the starting job, but is currently hurt and will likely miss week one, leaving Bonner as the last man standing.
Bonner, junior Kendall Williamson and sophomore Levani Damuni were named as the three most improved defensive players by fifth-year inside linebacker Curtis Robinson. Williamson will start at strong safety and Damuni is set to back up Robinson and Ricky Miezan at inside linebacker.
Robinson, Antoine, Williamson and fifth-year outside linebacker Jordan Fox are all older players Shaw thinks can anchor his defense. Stanford’s head coach is also hopeful that the defense can execute its rules.
Oregon will play with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, new passing game coordinator Bryan McClendon and a new, unnamed, starting quarterback after Justin Herbert was drafted into the NFL fourth overall. Either Tyler Shough, who has only thrown 15 passes for Oregon (completing 12 for three touchdowns), or Anthony Brown, a transfer from Boston College who started all 28 games during his time there, will be under center for the Ducks.
“It’s a little bit freeing to say, ‘hey guys, you know what, here are our rules, here’s what we’re going to do and here’s how we’re going to do it,’ because we don’t have any film truly that we can trust,” Shaw said.
Or, as Antoine put it, “we’ve been able to lock in.”
One continuity from last season, and a near-universal in the sport, is that Stanford has been hit hard by injuries. In addition to Kelly, senior outside linebacker Gabe Reid and junior outside linebacker Tangaloa Kaufusi are unlikely to play week one.
Senior outside linebacker Thunder Keck, who was put on scholarship before the season, will start in place of Reid.
Three more players on the defense, junior inside linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar, sophomore inside linebacker Tristan Sinclair and sophomore cornerback Nicholas Toomer, are out for the year. On offense, fifth-year running back Dorian Maddox will miss the season, leaving two sophomores to split time at the position.
“Austin Jones right now and Nathaniel Peat, they’re chomping at the bit, they can’t wait to get out there and play,” Shaw said. “What we lack in experience we believe we make up for in enthusiasm.”
Jones and Peat accounted for just 291 rushing yards last year playing behind Cameron Scarlett ’19. For most of the season, the offensive line they rushed behind was playing with three freshmen. In the (extended) offseason, many of those now-sophomore offensive linemen put on weight.
“They’re moving better, they’re stronger and they know the offense better,” Mills said. “I’m excited to get out there and play with them.”
Senior center Drew Dalman and senior right tackle Foster Sarell will start alongside three sophomores this year. Walter Rouse, who came in for Little in last year’s opener, started 11 games at left tackle. Branson Bragg started in just one before suffering an injury, but will start at right guard this year. Barrett Miller played in 11 games and made eight starts at left guard, where he will again play this year.
“We keep reminding ourselves as a staff, these guys are sophomores; they haven’t seen a lot of football,” Shaw said.
Last year, “we had some freshmen that kind of got a taste of it and we definitely weren’t happy with how we performed,” Dalman said.
In addition, sophomores Jake Hornibrook and Drake Nugent are ready to plug in. Hornibrook can slot in at guard and Nugent is available at center, but can also slide in at guard.
“We’re really gelling as a unit,” Dalman said. “And that communication is coming fast and it’s coming easier.”
Everything had to come fast because the team had so little practice time. In the offseason, the players met frequently with the coaching staff in Zoom meetings for the “classroom” portion of the development. Saturday will be a difficult first test against Oregon’s elite defensive line, most notably freshman All-American Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Stanford’s offense, like many other programs, did not fully show up against Oregon’s defense last year. Six teams were held to single digits last year by the Oregon defense and Stanford was held to just six. The game was one of Stanford defense’s best performances, but was erased because, as Shaw said, the team struggled to coordinate its performances.
“What they showed us was what they gave us,” Dalman said. “They pretty much played the same front the whole game.”
This year, Stanford also hopes to return to its rushing dominance of the last decade. Nine of the top 10 rushing seasons in program history occurred between 2008-2017, but the past two seasons Stanford has instead set passing records.
“We all want to bring back those Stanford rushing teams,” Dalman said.
“Going against my O-line every day and my starting running backs,” Robinson said, “it’s definitely a challenge for me.”
More simply, in Shaw’s estimation, the run game is “vital.”
Still, Mills and the receivers are what give many hope. Seniors Connor Wedington and Osiris St. Brown and juniors Simi Fehoko and Michael Wilson were the top four wideouts last year and are poised to be Mills’ favorite targets again.
“I don’t even really have to name names,” Mills said.
Antoine was like many fans waiting to see the return of Stanford football when he said, “I’m excited to see a show on Saturday.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.